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Pietro Verri’s Contribution to the Economic Theory of the 18th Century: Commercial Society, Civil Society and Governance of the Economy

Listed author(s):
  • Pier Luigi Porta


    (Department of Economics, University of Milan-Bicocca)

  • Roberto Scazzieri

    (University of Bologna and Accademia delle Scienze dell'Istituto, Bologna)

'Count Pietro Verri (1728-97) - Schumpeter writes (History, p. 178) - - would have to be included in any list of the greatest economists'. Within the Milanese school, he certainly stands out, alongside with Cesare Beccaria, during one of the most interesting periods from a history of analysis point of view. Luigi Cossa's famous introduction to the study of political economy rates Pietro Verri to be inferior to Beccaria in ingenuity and scientific cultivation, but greatly to be ahead of him as an economist.1 This judgement by Cossa, in particular, seems to echo the relative position of the two men in the history of ideas, particularly after Beccaria's rise to fame with a book - On crimes and punishments - which had in fact been largely inspired by Verri himself and defended by him.2 It is proposed in the present paper to revisit some of the basic tenets of Pietro Verri's political economy, with more in view than dwell on specific intuitions and theorems: namely relate those to Verri's own - quite original - conception of the economy. The scholarly work of Pietro Verri - with a special reference to his Meditazioni sulla economia politica of 1771 - provides the first systematic contribution stemming from the quarters of Lombard enlightenment in the field of political economy, especially so if one considers that Cesare Beccaria's parallel work - namely his Elementi di economia pubblica, conceived and drafted at the same time as Verri's Meditazioni - would only be published posthumously several years later. From the vantage point afforded by Verri's political economy, we gain a considerably attractive view of the most significant elements and characteristic concepts of Lombard enlightenment during the latter half of the 18th century; Verri, moreover, as we shall see, builds on a number of them in a new and original way. This paper is aimed at discussing Verri's political economy mainly along two distinct, but related, lines. In the first place the conception of commercial society is considered such as it is treated by the author particularly in his Meditazioni. In this perspective the analysis of such issues as competition and the market or money and taxation occupy a central place. Secondly it will be necessary to emphasise that Verri's approach has little to do either with forms of pure economics on one side - largely yet to be born throughout the 18th century - or, on the other side, with such conceptions of the polis - contrariwise well alive among his own contemporaries - as are founded on a sovereign authority conceived to be situated above the law. What Verri's political economy ultimately amounts to is an economic conception of civil society. The latter has natural strong connections with his own fact-mindedness - emphasised by Schumpeter - as well as with his deep practical involvement in administrative affairs and in the reforming process taking place during the latter half of the 18th century in Milan. In our view, a thorough investigation along the mentioned lines is the precondition for an understanding of the intellectual stature and of the scholarly contribution of Pietro Verri. His main ground is distinctly analytical and only by appreciating his analysis is it possible to shed light on the meaning and intellectual significance also of his practical contributions. Moreover Verri's pronouncements on the criticism of despotic government, the relevance of intermediate powers or bodies and on multiple levels of governance will be examined in a new and original light, showing how close they are to the gist of his analysis.

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Paper provided by University of Milano-Bicocca, Department of Economics in its series Working Papers with number 09.

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Length: 31 pages
Date of creation: Feb 1998
Date of revision: Feb 1998
Handle: RePEc:mib:wpaper:09
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  1. Porta, Pier Luigi & Scazzieri, Roberto, 1997. "Towards an economic theory of international civil society: Trust, trade and open government," Structural Change and Economic Dynamics, Elsevier, vol. 8(1), pages 5-28, March.
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